This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
After Argentina was eliminated in 2010 in a brutal 4-0 loss to Germany, Lionel Messi – the best player in the world – was left without a goal in the tournament and finished his second World Cup weeping inconsolably in the dressing room. His coach, Diego Maradona, said: “I will be 50 on October 30 and this is the toughest moment of my life.”
Yet Mr. Messi recovered from his devastation at that World Cup to win three consecutive Ballon d’Or awards from 2010-2012, and gave his country a chance at ultimate redemption this year, although that outcome in the end wasn’t in their favour as Germany was crowned World Cup champions after beating Argentina 1-0.
Another team faced an even bigger set-back at the hands of Germany this year – with Brazil suffering a 7-1 crushing defeat that The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly called “the death of a national dream” that took 56 years to build.
And with Wimbledon recently finished, we can similarly remember Andy Murray’s defeat to Roger Federer in 2012 (and his heartbreaking speech), which proved to be a catalyst for his ascension to the world’s Top 3 and a prelude to a triumphant victory at Wimbledon the following year.
How do these athletes channel the disappointment of significant – potentially career-defining – setbacks into recovering stronger? How do they avoid disengagement, anxiety and even depression – side effects of pressure and setbacks that are all too common in the day-to-day grind of corporate work environments? Off the pitch or the court, what lessons are there for the rest of us (and the Brazilians) in the way they come back?
Leadership is part of the story: good coaches constantly work on channelling adversity towards growth rather than burnout. Ultimately, however, resilience is an inside job. Truly elite athletes take the energy inherent in failure, and harness it to become that much stronger.
The resilience tool-kit: Four tips to improve mental fitness
Through our work with more than 70 Olympic medalists and thousands of managers, we have identified four mental fitness tools – drawn from sport psychology – that are critically important to resilience, and applicable in any environment:
1. Perspective – Consciously choose a “Three C” perspective.
Research has identified that individuals who thrive under pressure choose to view setbacks with a sense of challenge (“this is a test”), focus on what they can control (“time to work on my dribbling”), and commit to making it happen. Those who fail to cope view the same situations as a threat (“there go my endorsements”), with a sense of helplessness (“the referees have it in for me”), and alienation (“what’s the point?”).
Of course, some of us are naturally more optimistic. The key is to notice the perspective you are taking and, if it doesn’t focus on what you want, change it.
2. Energy management – Don’t waste the energy inherent in disappointment.
Setbacks are inevitably marked by powerful emotions: Mr. Messi crying in the locker room, Mr. Murray crying on centre court. Dr. Peter Jensen, a sport psychologist who has helped athletes at eight Olympic Games, reminds athletes constantly that “beneath every emotion is the energy to transform.” What are you going to do with that energy? How will you put it to use so that you never feel like this again?
3. Imagery – “Change the film” and look forward.
Imagine the impact of experiencing a devastating setback like a World Cup defeat not just once, but many times. Every time we replay a setback in our mind, it’s as if it just happened: our body experiences the same physiological impact and emotions. Elite athletes don’t let that happen. They choose to have short memories. They consciously work to “change the film” in their head and focus on what they want rather than what they don’t want.
Here’s an easy way to bring this practice into your world: once a day, close your eyes and imagine an upcoming performance. This could be a big meeting, a presentation, a performance review – anything inherently stressful. Then, adjust your “film” to improve one aspect of your performance. Re-run this correct film two or three times in your mind. You’ll be amazed at how frequently these imagined gains translate into real life.
4. Focus – Create and hold a compelling vision of the future.
For World Cup athletes, basking in the adoration of your country while your anthem plays is a pretty compelling vision for the future.
But what might this look like in your world? As a start, your own version of the podium is important – achievement plays a major role for all of us. Equally important is considering what the goals are that hold meaning for you, and how your day-to-day actions are connected to these goals.
Practice makes perfect
In the world of elite sport, it is commonly understood that resiliency is not an innate ability, but rather a set of skills that can be learned, practiced and mastered. Good coaches work on these skills as much as the physical ones.
Good managers are no different. According to Morneau Shepell, one of the country’s leading providers of workplace mental health training for managers, the level of dialogue between managers and employees regarding the impact of pressure and setbacks is an important factor in the prevention of mental injury, supporting those with mental illness and the ability to stay engaged through difficult times. Focusing on the above skills will improve everyone’s ability to thrive under pressure and recover stronger.